Buffer Zones + You + Turtles = Awesome

Image credit: Conservation Buffers by National Agroforestry Center http://nac.unl.edu/buffers/guidelines/2_biodiversity/12.html

Image credit: Conservation Buffers by National Agroforestry Center

Buffer zones are an important part of any ecosystem. A buffer is a strip of land that safeguards the border of an ecosystem. Buffer zones are often a connective transition area between two larger ecosystem types. For example, the riparian zone can be considered a buffer zone between the river ecosystem and the upland ecosystem. The sizes of ecological buffer zones in developed areas in Ontario are determined by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, and regulated through such Acts as the Planning Act and Conservation Authorities Act. Buffer zone dimensions have been determined by reviewing multiple research studies and by assessing current and past policies and procedures in land use planning. Buffer zone size and width are based on a number of factors including how much land is needed to protect a specific species or vegetative community, maintain a specific ecological function such as a hydrological route, help with water quality such as preventing siltation, and in land use planning for building locations to prevent risk of sink holes, flooding and erosion.

Why are Buffer Zones Important?

The type of vegetation in a buffer zone, specifically a riparian zone (area between the river and upland), can directly influence aquatic habitat and affect water quality for aquatic life. Protecting a zone of vegetation does many amazing things for our environment including: regulating temperatures through shade; cleaning our water supply by filtering runoff and sediment; safeguarding important feeding and reproductive sites for wildlife; recycling nutrients back into the soil; and contributing to physical habitat features such as fallen woody debris. Vegetated riparian zones also act as linkages such as being safe eco-highways for many terrestrial animals, and where terrestrial and aquatic food webs interconnect.

Generally in Ontario we build using a 30 metre buffer zone around a riparian habitat. This is a minimum approximation of land needed to capture processes and functions that typically take place in an active riparian ecosystem. However, it should be noted that the 30 metre buffer was not based on a species or function specific need but instead reflects on a general threshold distance for aquatic health, and is meant to capture a variety of protection and habitat functions. So if you have the option such as, around your cottage, the bigger the buffer the better for safeguarding our environment and its functions.

To lean move about buffers check out Environment Canada’s How Much Habitat is Enough?

How are people helping?

McMaster University, in Hamilton Ontario, stepped up to help their local environment by altering the edge of a parking lot to increase the buffer zone around turtle habitat.

The following has been adapted from the original article By Jeff Green, CBC News Posted: Oct 05, 2014 10:28 AM ET Last Updated: Oct 08, 2014 11:47 AM ET

McMaster University’s Lot M has served as an overflow parking lot for decades, and a giant man-made barrier between the Dundas Valley Conservation Area (DVCA) and Cootes Paradise for just as long.

Volunteers with McMaster’s permission decided to change this by making sand berms for turtle nesting grounds on a slice of the parking lot! The berms are roughly 20 metres wide and stretch approximately 1 km long in an area that has been uprooted to create a larger natural area buffer around Spencers Creek. Hamilton Naturalists’ Club (HNC) and Canon Canada also joined in to plant native trees.

“Thinking sustainable is a challenge,” said Dr. Susan Dudley, a professor at McMaster’s biology department. “We’re not saying there shouldn’t be parking … We can make sure we’re resetting the parking lot to make it more sustainable.”

Dudley said many creeks have lost the riparian zone from mostly human cut backs, like farming to name one example.

“It’s a rare habitat now,” Dudley said of the cold water creek.

Without the shade, created by a buffer, the temperature of a creek can heat up risking the lives of many aquatic organisms like invertebrates, fish and frogs. These organisms are important food sources for our friends the turtles, whose survival intern becomes threatened. A 10 meter buffer was the old standard from decades ago, but McMaster has since adopted a 30 metre buffer around creeks for development.

“When they designed the parking lot they’re not thinking about the creek, they’re mostly thinking about preventing flooding,” Dudley said.

And in the future going forward, Dudley will be monitoring the progress of riparian zone, taking measurements of how the added 20 metre wide section is doing year after year with her field work class.